Amazon Alexa, also known simply as Alexa, is a virtual assistant AI technology developed by Amazon, first used in the Amazon Echo smart speakers developed by Amazon Lab126. It is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time information, such as news. Alexa can also control several smart devices using itself as a home automation system. Users are able to extend the Alexa capabilities by installing “skills” (additional functionality developed by third-party vendors, in other settings more commonly called apps such as weather programs and audio features).
Most devices with Alexa allow users to activate the device using a wake-word (such as Alexa or Amazon); other devices (such as the Amazon mobile app on iOS or Android and Amazon Dash Wand) require the user to push a button to activate Alexa’s listening mode, although, some phones also allow a user to say a command, such as “Alexa” or “Alexa wake”. Currently, interaction and communication with Alexa are available only in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Hindi. In Canada, Alexa is available in English and French (with the Quebec accent).
As of November 2018, Amazon had more than 10,000 employees working on Alexa and related products. In January 2019, Amazon’s devices team announced that they had sold over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices.
In September 2019, Amazon launched many new devices achieving many records while competing with the world’s smart home industry. The new Echo Studio became the first smart speaker with 360 sound and Dolby sound. Other new devices included an Echo dot with a clock behind the fabric, a new third-generation Amazon Echo, Echo Show 8, a plug-in Echo device, Echo Flex, Alexa built-in wireless earphones, Echo buds, Alexa built-in spectacles, Echo frames, an Alexa built-in Ring, and Echo Loop.
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In early 2018, security researchers managed to turn an Echo into a spy device by creating a malicious Alexa Skill that could record unsuspecting users and send the transcription of their conversations to an attacker.
In November 2018, Amazon sent 1700 recordings of an American couple to an unrelated European man. The incident proves that Alexa records people without their knowledge. Although the man who received the recordings reported the anomaly to Amazon, the company did not notify the victim until German magazine c’t also contacted them and published a story about the incident. The recipient of the recordings contacted the publication after weeks went by following his report with no response from Amazon (although the company did delete the recordings from its server). When Amazon did finally contact the man whose recordings had been sent to a stranger, they claimed to have discovered the error themselves and offered him a free Prime membership and new Alexa devices by way of apology.
Amazon blamed the incident on “human error” and called it an “isolated single case.” However, in May 2018 an Alexa device in Portland, Oregon, recorded a family’s conversation and sent it to one of their contacts without their knowledge. The company dismissed the incident as an “extremely rare occurrence” and claimed the device “interpreted background conversation” as a sequence of commands to turn on, record, send the recording, and select a specific recipient.
Alexa has been known to listen in on private conversations and store personal information which was hacked and sent to the hacker. Although Amazon has announced that this was a rare occurrence, Alexa shows the dangers of using technology and sharing private information with robotics.
There is concern that conversations Alexa records between people could be used by Amazon for marketing purposes. Privacy experts have expressed real concern about how marketing is getting involved in every stage of people’s lives without users noticing. This has necessitated the creation of regulations that can protect users’ private information from technology companies.
A New Hampshire judge ruled in November 2018 that authorities could examine recordings from an Amazon Echo device recovered from the home of murder victim Christine Sullivan for use as evidence against defendant Timothy Verrill. Investigators believe that the device, which belonged to the victim’s boyfriend, could have captured audio of the murder and its aftermath.
During the Chris Watts interrogation/interview video at timestamp 16:15:15, Watts was told by the interrogator, “We know that there’s an Alexa in your house, and you know those are trained to record distress,” indicating Alexa may send recordings to Amazon if certain frequencies and decibels (that can only be heard during intense arguments or screams) are detected.
Amazon Echo (shortened to Echo) is a brand of smart speakers developed by Amazon. Echo devices connect to the voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant service Alexa, which will respond when you say “Alexa”. Users may change this wake word to “Amazon”, “Echo” or “Computer”. The features of the device include: voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, and playing audiobooks, in addition to providing weather, traffic and other real-time information. It can also control several smart devices, acting as a home automation hub. The smart speaker needs to use Wi-Fi to connect to Internet, there is no Ethernet port.
According to confirmed reports, Amazon started developing Echo devices inside its Lab126 offices in Silicon Valley and in Cambridge, Massachusetts as early as 2010. The device represented one of first attempts to expand its device portfolio beyond the Kindle e-reader. The Echo featured prominently in Amazon’s first-ever Super Bowl broadcast television advertisement in 2016.
Amazon initially limited the first-generation Echo to Amazon Prime members or by invitation, but it became widely available in the United States on June 23, 2015. The press speculated that it would make its Canadian debut in mid-to-late 2016, after Amazon posted job listings for developers for Alexa and co-hosted a hackathon in Toronto. The Echo became available in the United Kingdom on 28 September 2016. Additionally, the Alexa voice service is available to be added to other devices, and Amazon encourages other companies’ devices and services to connect to it.
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There are concerns about the access Echo has to private conversations in the home, or other non-verbal indications that can identify who is present in the home and who is not—based on audible cues such as footstep-cadence or radio/television programming. Amazon responds to these concerns by stating that Echo only streams recordings from the user’s home when the “wake word” activates the device, though the device is technically capable of streaming voice recordings at all times, and in fact will always be listening to detect if a user has uttered the word.
Echo uses past voice recordings the user has sent to the cloud service to improve response to future questions the user may pose. To address privacy concerns, the user can delete voice recordings that are currently associated with the user’s account, but doing so may degrade the user’s experience using voice search. To delete these recordings, the user can visit the “Manage My Device” page on Amazon.com or contact Amazon customer service. In May 2018, it was reported that an Echo device had sent a recorded conversation to an acquaintance of a user who did not intend for this to happen. Amazon apologized and conjectured that one part of the conversation had been misinterpreted as a command to distribute it.
Echo uses an address set in the Alexa companion app when it needs a location. Amazon and third-party apps and websites use location information to provide location-based services and store this information to provide voice services, the Maps app, Find Your Device, and to monitor the performance and accuracy of location services. For example, Echo voice services use the user’s location to respond to the user’s requests for nearby restaurants or stores. Similarly, Echo uses the user’s location to process the user’s mapping-related requests and improve the Maps experience. All information collected is subject to the Amazon.com Privacy Notice.
Amazon retains digital recordings of users’ audio spoken after the “wake up word”, and while the audio recordings are subject to demands by law enforcement, government agents, and other entities via subpoena, Amazon publishes some information about the warrants it receives, the subpoenas it receives, and some of the warrant-less demands it receives, allowing customers some indication as to the percentage of illegal demands for customer information it receives.
Echo as criminal evidence
During the course of the investigation into the November 22, 2015 death of Victor Collins in the home of James Andrew Bates in Bentonville, Arkansas, police sought the data stored on the Amazon Echo on the premises as evidence, but were refused by Amazon. The conflict was resolved when Bates consented to the release of his personal information that was held by the company.